Back when I was in training, I would picture my first practice – usually the fantasy involved plush couches, soft music in the waiting room, and a friendly office manager to answer calls, follow-up with client appointment reminders, do my billing, and more.
(After all.. I didn’t want to be doing all that stuff! I just wanted to be a counselor.)
As was true with many other things, eventually reality hit me in the face. In order to afford to hire someone to take on all that work, I’d have to figure out how to pay a living salary, probably provide healthcare, and train someone, or at least join a group that would do those things for me.
At that start of my practice, this simply wasn’t a realistic option for me. I didn’t have the time or money for the former, and the right opportunity for the latter.
So I started out like most of you. I kept track of my appointments in a little purple day planner, using client initials for privacy. I took notes on my computer, (without saving them to my hard drive) printed them out and signed them. I reviewed different lockbox options for my home office while in transition – what would be the most secure option if someone broke into my place and stole the file cabinet?
Nothing really gave me peace of mind. And then, I can’t remember how – I found CounSol.com practice management and online counseling solutions. It changed almost everything about my practice.
Nowadays, if my coaching clients don’t have a practice management system in place, one of the first things we’re going to work on is to try to find one for them.
Here’s why I think it’s so important that private practice counselors (especially those in solo practice) strongly consider a practice management tool.
Practice Management System/Software/Tool: (n.) A web or software-based application that manages different aspects of running a clinical practice securely. For examples of these aspects, see below.
Secure Note-Taking: Right now I have three office locations. That’s right. Three. I just moved to Fort Worth and have a wonderful location set up near Texas Christian University. However, I practiced in Dallas previously, and I didn’t want to abandon those clients, either, so twice a month I’m driving to my previous practice location. In addition, I have several clients I see exclusively online, from my home office.
Can you imagine if I had three sets of notes? The security risks of that, not to mention the convenience factor?
I forget stuff. I’ll get to the office and realize I forgot to check something all the time! But since I keep all my notes in a secure location – a virtual location – I can log in from my phone anywhere to check on what I wrote for the last session, or to check my client journal for a last-minute entry before today’s appointment.
The client journal is a feature unique to CounSol- the client has a secure place to write their thoughts that they can choose to share with their therapist if they so desire. This has been a tool that is incredibly helpful with clients I have who struggle to verbalize their emotions, but feel free to share openly in writing. This is also useful to review before a session, especially with the kinds of clients just described.
How YOU can use secure note-taking:
- Maintain multiple offices.
- Check from your phone/tablet.
- Update a file quickly.
- Back-up your printed, physically secured notes. (You can upload scanned attachments.)
- In CounSol – encourage your clients to use the journal feature to securely process their feelings outside of session. (They can use it just for them OR share with you, but either way their private entries are safe from family and friends.)
Easy Scheduling: Scheduling software can increase new client bookings and reduce no-shows significantly, not to mention limiting the back-and-forth phone calls trying to nail down a time.
I like using scheduling tools because it removes one more barrier to entry for new clients – they might be on the fence, surfing my website, thinking about their options – but then they see I have an open slot and it seems like it’s easy enough to handle – just clicking a few buttons. It stops being an overwhelming problem and becomes instead something they can take on. I can tell you I have gotten a few clients without a single sales conversation – they just check out my website, fill out their forms, and book their appointment right then.
How YOU Can Use Easy Scheduling:
- Create a link or pop-up on your website saying, “Book Now!”
- Leave a message with a client you can’t get ahold of with a link to your scheduling tool.
- Close intro calls with clients who aren’t ready to commit yet, outlining the next step of scheduling a time on your calendar.
Creating Your Own Forms: Most counselors will need to create and use unique intake forms for their practice, as there are different kinds of questions counselors will find relevant to their clinical needs. For example, I always ask if the client has had counseling or life coaching before, as prior experience with a therapist, positive or negative, can affect how they view therapy or even myself as the counselor.
In addition, counselors often use therapy worksheets to supplement therapy or as part of the process. Recently, I created one myself (the form taken from one of my favorite resource websites, TherapistAid, called “My Strengths and Qualities.”) I enclosed screencaps showing how simple that process can be.
The Client Form Creation Tool:
Close-Up of Creating a Question:
Overall, that took me less than 5 minutes to set up.
After creating the form, you can then assign a client to complete it. All they have to do is simply log on, click and select the form, complete and save. Not only do you get the worksheet immediately upon completion, (rather than waiting till the next session to get it) you can have it permanently at your fingertips when you need it to reference.
How YOU can use forms:
- Create different intake forms for different client groups – children/parents, couples, military, etc.
- Assign homework worksheets between sessions (as in the example above.)
- Create credit card forms for clients to store payment information in case of no-show or late cancel. (I do this, and it reduces my need to enforce no-show fees to almost nil…simply because it creates accountability.)
P.S. In case you’re wondering, yes, I did catch the typo in my form before I sent it to any clients. I decided to leave it in for you , though, so you can all see that a) everyone makes mistakes and it doesn’t take away from their other “qualitiies” and b) to remind you to read stuff a few times before you send it out – it’s impoortaant. 🙂
Easy Billing: Speaking of billing, many practice management tools today (CounSol included) allow for one-click invoicing, charging and tracking of co-payments. At a glance, you can see what is pending, and what is up-to-date. You can add partial payments (i.e. copays) while you wait for the balance from the insurance company.
Check with each practice management system you review which payment processing services they support.
(Just in case any of you are unfamiliar, by payment processing services I’m referring to the many different no-monthly-fee, pay-per-swipe services that are available now for online businesses and small business owners. Think of the credit card readers that plug into your phone and you’ve probably got a good idea of what I’m talking about.)
For CounSol, though they also support Stripe, BraintreePayments, Forte, Authorize.Net, PayScape & BluePay, I have found PayPal the easiest to use with my practice. I have a group of clients who take the initiative and pre-pay their session rates the day before when they get their invoice reminders. I don’t have to remind them or encourage them, they just do it.
If you have a payment processing system that isn’t supported by your practice management system yet, that’s where the credit card form comes in. Use that to keep their credit card record on file securely (eliminating the risk to you of having paper forms, which can be stolen more easily) and just key in the credit card on the day of session, processing through that system and then sending them the invoice through CounSol or a similar tool.
How YOU can use easy billing:
- Remind clients of past-due bills gently.
- Keep track of your practice income goals and compare to previous months and years.
- Collect payments automatically by instructing clients to pay before they come to appointment in their secure login area.
Customized Portal: In case the word “portal” sounds a bit sci-fi to you, be assured all I’m talking about is a port of entry for clients to interact with your practice, virtually.
Here’s My Client Portal:
As you can see, you can customize the colors, add a picture and write a brief intro. This is where your clients will register to become a new client for the first time and login for all other purposes – bill payment, secure messaging, scheduling and more.
A client portal is necessary because most of the snazzy WordPress and web-based forms are highly functional, but not HIPAA-friendly. This way every bit of client information is secured, from start to finish.
How YOU can use a Client Portal:
- Registration of new clients, communication with existing clients.
- To collect information before first sessions.
- To store directions, maps and more for your office location(s).
Secure Messaging: Everyone uses email these days. Including your clients. If you’re like me, clients like to contact you by email, but that makes you (and me) nervous. It’s just not safe or secure. Unless you’re following HIPAA encryption guidelines, and then it’s something that combines good customer service AND good privacy boundaries.
How YOU can use Secure Messaging:
- Setting appointment times.
- Checking in between sessions.
- Confirming or sending homework.
- Sending supplemental material links, (books, articles, etc.) without going through an unsecured system.
Professionalism: One of the biggest thing that makes a good first impression on a client is having a professional-looking intake system. With a practice management tool, you can ensure that the client enrollment process is all set up to go smoothly every time.
This is my system:
- After I meet a new client and they indicate interest in a new appointment, I send them to my secure client portal. (Pictured above.)
- They view my policies, which they must agree to before they register. This includes my no-show/late-cancel fee policy,the services I do and do not offer, and more.
- Once they have agreed and created a login, they are prompted to fill out an intake form and credit card information form.
- Then, if they do not want to do so on their own, I follow up with them and schedule a time, and give them directions. That’s it!
This works for me because I am able to interact personally with them at the beginning and end, but the more mundane aspects I skip altogether. This increases my professional appearance and gives me more time to devote to the personal part of the process with them or with other clients.
It really does feel as professional as having an office manager or assistant, but for a fraction of the cost!
How YOU can promote a Professional Image:
- Creating an onboarding/intake process like the one I use.
- Prompt to pay an invoice through automated billing.
- Send out appointment reminders (see below.)
Appointment Reminders: Automated appointment reminders in practice management software allows the tool to more than pay for itself. My clients use these reminders, if need be, to cancel or reschedule their appointments, which saves me the headache of driving to the office early for no reason, or leaving a spot open that could have been filled by a paying client.
CounSol sends out text, email or automated phone reminders 24 hours before session. (You can also send out appointment reminders 48 and 72 hours before, if that suits your practice needs better.) Appointment reminders reduce no-shows by 50-75%, and despite all the other benefits, they’re still the number 1 reason I will never go without practice management software every again.
How YOU Can Use Appointment Reminders:
- To remind people of appointments. 🙂
- To set up homework in the system (as faux appointments) so that they will get reminders to complete!
Online Counseling: I have been seeing clients online since 2011. I love the flexibility it gives me to work from home, and my clients love the fact that they can talk to me from anywhere and stay in touch if they’re especially mobile. Not all practice management tools offer online counseling as an option, so check with the practice management system you’re considering if you think that online counseling is something that you might like to explore down the line. CounSol offers it in their Practice Management Plus plan, or you can start out without it on the Practice Management plan and upgrade when you’re ready.
How YOU can use online counseling:
- Supplement or grow your practice.
- Use when clients are sick (or you are!)
- Use to meet clients in rural areas or clients with decreased mobility.
- Market to busy professionals who travel, college students studying abroad or home for the summer, and those in high-pressure careers who only have their lunch break to talk!
The final feature on our checklist today, though, is set off separately from the rest of the list. Why? Because it’s something that’s (as far as I know!) only available with CounSol.com.
That feature is: having a Personal Account Manager.
Someone you can email or call whenever you need help, that knows you and your case – not someone who has never met you before and is reading someone else’s notes to catch up. I know that whenever I need to contact CounSol, I’m going to talk to the same person every time no matter what problem I’m facing – a fact which helped me very much in the early days when I was still figuring out the technology, and still makes a big difference whenever CounSol adds a new feature I want to understand and implement quickly.
There’s nothing like having someone that actually knows you. I’ve had the same account manager since I started in 2011, and he’s put up with all sorts of questions – dumb and smart, last-minute and panicky, in his job description and not-so-much – all with grace!
How YOU can use your personal account manager:
- Tech support.
- Requests to add new features.
- Orientation to the system.
- Help with applications of the CounSol.com service.
I wrote this article so that anyone reading it can use what’s written in their search for the perfect practice management tool – because I’m serious in saying that I think almost every solo practice owner needs one.
But as you can no doubt tell, I’m pretty biased in who I recommend you pick. And I’m okay with that – I feel confident in supporting them because I have worked with them happily for so long. I’ve also been referring people to them for years without any complaints from those I sent their way. That makes me feel good about encouraging you to check out CounSol.com by clicking the link here.
You can also visit CounSol.com on our sponsor page.
What can the right practice management system do for you? It can save you money, time, and effort, as well as keep you in better compliance with HIPAA, and perhaps even bring in a few more clients than you would have otherwise, due to the added professionalism and ease of enrollment.
As most systems run between $50-$100/month, the cost is way less than paying for an office manager, and will work hours that no office manager can reasonably work. An online tool can be up and ready at any time of the day or night to receive your messages. Add that to the time you are able to work seeing clients because you are not busy playing phone tag, tracking down unpaid bills, organizing paper notes, and more, and almost any version of this tool pays for itself many times over. If you have more than 5 clients a week, you’re likely to save more than you spend by reviewing the features you need and choosing the right practice management system for you.
Conference sponsors have donated to the conference to help make it possible to have the resources to put this event on. No sponsors have paid me to write anything specific about their company, all opinions are my own.